Looking around our apartment I see a bullet from Gettysburg…a wooden carved elephant from India…a rock from the top of Kilimanjaro and another from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. There’s a vase from Zambia and an engraved Nittany Lion statue. And then there’s the matryoshka doll containing the nickel that changed my life. (another story for another time)

Tokens, mementos, keepsakes, totems…souvenirs.

These relics of past experience are an exhibit to our lives. Each item carrying an amazing story and deep meaning. That’s the power of the souvenir. A power rivaled only by song and scent. (So really a smelly, singing souvenir is all-powerful.)

Now imagine if you brought together a collection of all-time great souvenirs. That’s what the Smithsonian has done, along with great museum complexes around the world. Museums are nothing more than a collection of souvenirs, when you get right down to it. And it’s that spirit that’s celebrated with the National Museum of American History’s new exhibit Souvenir Nation. Think of it like the souvenir hall of fame.

You’ll find things like a piece of Plymouth Rock and a piece of a tie from the transcontinental railroad:

Last railroad tie transcontinental railroad
This little piece of wood is from the “last tie” of the transcontinental railroad…as in the one with the Golden Spike. But it wasn’t the one with the Golden Spike…it’s a long story. But that’s the point!

There’s also the random, like Napoleon’s Napkin:

Emperor Napoleon napking Island of Elba
The napkin of Emperor Napoleon while on the Island of Elba…there’s probably some DNA on there in case you wanted to bring back the miniature megalomaniac Jurassic Park-style.

And a fence-rail that was split by Abraham Lincoln:

Abraham Lincoln fence rail split
Here’s a fence rail split by Abraham Lincoln

The exhibit is easy enough to breeze through whether you’re occupying a lunch break or making a stop in while trying to take in all the museums during a visit to the District. One key point: It’s in the Smithsonian Castle...not the American History Museum building. Although if you accidentally end up in the wrong museum it’s not exactly the end of the world.

The exhibit just opened on Friday and is scheduled to run through August of next year. In all there are 28 items on display, each one with a pretty fantastic story: a piece of the Bastille, a can opener used by Teddy Roosevelt while on safari in Africa, JFK’s tie-clip and the last remaining piece of the Washington Monument cornerstone. And be prepared to see hair…lots of hair.


Tags : American HistorybastillemuseumsNapoleonSmithsonianSmithsonian American History MuseumSouvenirSouvenir Nation
Kris Ankarlo

The author Kris Ankarlo

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